Before I trash this film – I admire Oliver Stone. He’s a visionary director with a flair for eerie metaphor, epic drama, and psychedelic editing. More than that, he’s a moralist as any great artist must be. He finds injustice and works to set it right, sees tyranny and stomps it out. This might explain where JFK went wrong. The darkness of Vietnam hangs over his most vital work, as it should. Stone has told the story of Vietnam with visceral detail (Platoon) and inspiring humanity (Born On The 4th Of July). Somehow in JFK he’s seemed to have found the answer for why it all happened, which sends him down conspiratorial rabbit holes. And this time – he’s wrong.
Another disclaimer: my real problem is not with Oliver Stone (a true artist and humanist with whom I tend to agree politically) but with the JFK conspiracy matrix that infected his film and our culture. These JFK conspiracy authors just keep popping up, putting out new books every year with scary titles that sound like Cinemax movies. Web Of Deceit. Treasonous Lies. I’m sorry, but when your “serious” historical document sounds like a Shannon Tweed movie, you lost already. I’m not even gonna waste any more time on those guys, they only get half a paragraph. Let them play their games at the kids’ table and let’s have a serious discussion about the JFK assassination.
To quickly debunk the nonsense, there were three shots fired at President Kennedy, one missed, two hit, all from behind. All the physical evidence pointed to one man: Lee Harvey Oswald, an angry loner with unhealthy political fixations, and a sharpshooter with a history of assassination attempts, cf General Edwin Walker. But the film JFK alleges that there were six shots fired, including from the infamous grassy knoll. Let’s think about this – if we’re conspiring to murder the president and frame a single shooter from behind him, why set up a team of shooters to his right FRONT? In the film, Kevin Costner’s Jim Garrison even admits that several shots missed. What if one of the grassy knoll shooters had hit the front of the limo, smashing out a headlight? How would we ever explain that? This grassy knoll stuff makes no sense – if there would have been other shooters, they would have been aiming from the same building as Oswald.
And why not? Because according to conspiracy theorists, the perpetrators were omnipotent – altering the president’s motorcade route, slowing down the car, hiding and disappearing teams of multiple shooters, tampering with any and all evidence, with multiple autopsies, with the phone lines in DC, the Warren Commission, THEN somehow silencing everyone involved. What about witnesses? Oh, they were all murdered – look up “mysterious deaths” for a particularly stupid rabbit hole. Because if you employ a shooter to kill a witness, you then have to worry about silencing that shooter. Look at how Watergate unfolded to see how easily these things fall apart – the press and investigators will find threads and follow them, and the conspirators under pressure will appeal to their superiors for more money or protection. Ultimately, with Watergate, everyone involved ended up yapping about it, even writing books from jail as if Chuck Colson were Huey Newton. Sorry asshole, not even close. But the point stands – Watergate was a small break-in employing some of the same characters allegedly involved with JFK (Howard Hunt, whom we’ll get to in a bit) and the whole thing fell apart due to human greed, fear, and failure.
And why did “the establishment” want John Kennedy murdered? Because, according to JFK, he was going to end the Vietnam War. Again, let’s concede this point even if closer examination of the facts is not kind to this theory. We don’t know what he would have done, though we can hope that whatever happened would have been conducted with less soulless villainy than what we saw with McNamara, Nixon, Kissinger, et al. But let’s say JFK needed to go. Why not blackmail him? Surely his womanizing was no secret, therefore he would have been susceptible to either negotiation or public humiliation. They couldn’t wait until the campaign season coming just the next year? They needed their war THAT badly? Why then, didn’t Vietnam truly escalate until late 1965?
Regardless, any talk about Kennedy’s intentions re: Vietnam is superfluous. This is a murder case and the evidence is clear. Conspiracy is poisonous to true justice, to healthy intellectual discourse. OJ Simpson’s defense team worked to exculpate a guilty man by inventing a conspiracy theory. It worked because their allegations involving that conspiracy were legitimate: institutional racism, police corruption. These are serious issues, and maybe sometimes we need an OJ or JFK to bring them to the light. But it doesn’t change the evidence. So for me, I can agree that the LAPD was a den of corruption, that racism – institutionally and otherwise – remains a vile undercurrent in America. But OJ Simpson was guilty. So as well, the American government is composed of all sorts of webs and shadows, greeds and evils. But Lee Harvey Oswald was guilty.
Here’s the biggest problem with JFK the film: we are presented with TWO conspiracies, which when examined, only illustrates the lunacy of the whole business. The first involves Jim Garrison’s prosecution of Clay Shaw in the late 60s, which alleged that the New Orleans businessman conspired with Lee Oswald among others to murder the president in response to the Bay of Pigs fiasco. We are shown scenes of woefully miscast Joe Pesci as conspirator David Ferrie venting wildly and planning retribution with Cubans and Oswald in the shadows. But later we are presented with a second conspiracy in a famous scene with a Mr X played by Donald Sutherland. He discloses a grand scheme hatched by a cadre of black operatives, military industrial jackals, oilmen, and even Lyndon Johnson. But what about the other guys? You’ve got two different groups with different motives. How did all this stuff link up? Hashtag #conspiracy? It’s so easy to make up these allegations and then toss around spooky terms like “military industrial complex” but coming up with evidence to support them is a different matter. There was evidence, but it all pointed to Oswald’s guilt.
There were two officially sanctioned investigations: the massive Warren Commission and the House Select Committee in the late 70s, which actually concluded with the probability of a conspiracy based on erroneous acoustic evidence. Which should underline an important point – the government is not some big evil monolith, it’s a rickety beast made up of a vast array of humanity, some probably well intentioned, many more just power hungry dogs, others simply indifferent. Had there been a conspiracy of the sort that Oliver Stone and others allege, it never would have survived to this point. Why? Because good men and women in government, in the press, in the world, would have eventually exposed it, even if only for their own gains. And the power hungry dogs with the louder barks would have similar motives, because what better way to make a reputation than to bring justice to the killers of the king? (This is essentially the story behind the HSCA and its mistaken conspiracy conclusion.) Thus the JFK conspiracy theorists reveal their own ignorance of human nature, of history, of proper criminal prosecution.
We might note that Howard Hunt, one of the Watergate plumbers, apparently offered some deathbed confession to his involvement. Are we to believe him? Right, let’s just let scoundrels like him usurp proper research and investigation. An interesting sidenote: Gore Vidal once wrote a catty piece reviewing Hunt’s side profession as a spy novelist. Vidal humorously dissected the bad prose and unflattering psychological details that emerged. But he went further to question the validity of Oswald’s diary, poring through spurious entries. To whom would the job of forging such a diary go? Perhaps a man like Howard Hunt. I don’t necessarily believe this, but even if it were true, it wouldn’t mitigate Oswald’s guilt. It was of utmost importance at the outset to establish Oswald as a lone killer. Why? Because at the height of the Cold War, we wouldn’t want rumors and allegations of Soviet involvement, or Cuba just two years after the Bay of Pigs. That “the official story went out right away” was for national security purposes. And yet conspiracy theorists will take one thread and ramble through another bad book with a Cinemax title.
This still won’t convince them. That’s fine. This is one of our national myths, JFK and his conspirators our Gilgamesh and Grendel. And besides all that, JFK the film is a tremendous work, in which the narrative peels back layers of conspiracy with deepening tension, setting Costner’s Garrison at its moral center. The final courtroom summation is masterfully done, with thousands of edits flashing back to re-enactments. And much as I disagree with the evidence (for example, the “magic bullet” theory is based on an erroneous diagram of the limo), I always feel inspired after watching, that the driving force behind it was bold and true. Yes we must fight tyranny and America has – and still has! – elements within the government that would drive us down that dark path. But Lee Harvey Oswald shot JFK, alone. As F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”